Scouting report: Red Sox-Rays Game 6

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Inside Edge, a leading baseball scouting and information service, will provide scouting reports to Yahoo! Sports throughout the MLB playoffs. Here’s its breakdown of Game 6 of the 2008 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.

INSIDE EDGE BREAKDOWN—RED SOX VS. RAYS

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Starting Pitchers
 
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Beckett
   
• Red Sox starter Josh Beckett will try to recapture the October magic he has shown in seasons past. Beckett was spectacular in 2003 and in 2007 when leading the Marlins and the Red Sox to respective World Series titles. He’s been the opposite in 2008, and many have questioned his health. Whether hampered by injury or not, Beckett needs to do a better job of getting ahead of hitters. He has thrown a first-pitch strike just 48 percent of the time in his two postseason starts (62 percent in the regular season) and been hammered while behind or even in the count to the tune of a .591 batting average (13-for-22) and five home runs allowed.

   
• Part of the concern over Beckett’s physical well-being stems from the clear drop in velocity he has displayed in October. His fastball is averaging 91.7 mph in the postseason as opposed to 93.9 mph in the regular season. While dispensing of the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies last postseason, Beckett charged his heater up to 95.3 mph on average.

   
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Shields
   
James Shields has one of the best changeups in the league and he loves to use it in two-strike counts. Tampa’s Game 6 starter threw the changeup nearly half the time with the count at 1-2 and 2-2 this season; opponents were 15-for-120 (.125) against it. Red Sox batters may know the change is coming, but current Red Sox hitters are just 3-for-22 (.136) against Shields’ signature pitch this season and 1-for-11 with six strikeouts when he pulled the string on 1-2 and 2-2 counts.

   
• Rays manager Joe Maddon opted to save Shields for Game 6 so he could pitch at home if needed. Shields has in fact been outstanding at home this season, sporting a 9-2 record and 2.59 ERA in Tampa compared to a 5-6 record and 4.82 ERA on the road. Shields is averaging 101 pitches per game at home, and 90 pitches per game on the road. See if Maddon sticks with his starter a little longer given that the Red Sox erupted late in the game against Rays relievers in Game 5 and the fact that Shields tends to get better as his pitch count rises – opponents are hitting just .226 against him after the third inning at home this year.

     
Bullpen
 
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• Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was summoned for two innings of work in Game 5 and threw a season-high 38 pitches, but don’t expect that to affect him negatively in Game 6. Papelbon surpassed the 30-pitch mark three other times this season. In every one of those occasions, he delivered a scoreless and efficient inning to close out his next game – one of which was on one day’s rest, such as today.
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JP Howell gave up the winning hit Thursday, but the Rays might be more concerned with the way Boston hitters shelled their flame-throwing setup man Grant Balfour. Balfour followed his usual game plan, pumping 96 mph fastballs and nothing else, but was able to retire only Jason Varitek (2-for-43 against fastballs over 94 mph this season) and Mark Kotsay, who flew out, but hit the ball hard. If the usually reliable Balfour enters Game 6, the man he will not want to face is Kevin Youkilis, who had the league’s second-best slugging percentage (.696) against fastballs in Balfour’s velocity range this year. Youkilis is 2-for-4 with a double and triple against Balfour in his career.

 
Hitters
 
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Upton
   
B.J. Upton has certainly done his share for the Rays’ offense in the postseason, belting six home runs and hitting .342. Upton, who homered only nine times in the regular season, hit off-speed stuff better than fastballs in the regular season, but has opponents rewriting their scouting reports by going 11-for-28 (.393) and hitting all six of his homers against the hard stuff in October.

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Pena
   
Carlos Pena was the right man to have in the box in the top of the ninth inning with first and third and one out and the score tied on Thursday. But the first baseman who had more sacrifice flies than double play balls this year rolled into a double play to end the potential go-ahead rally. Pena put 67 percent of his balls in play in the air this season (56 percent is the league average). He should get back to his airborne ways in Game 6 – in 15 at-bats against Saturday’s starter Josh Beckett, Pena has not put a ball on the ground and is batting .455 when he makes contact.

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Drew
   
J.D. Drew continued his late-inning heroics in Game 5 by producing the game-winning hit in the ninth inning. During the regular season, Drew hit better early in games (.307 batting average in the first six innings and .212 after that), but he’s reversed that trend in the postseason. Drew is 6-for-12 (.500) after the sixth inning in October and just 2-for-19 (.105) prior to the sixth frame. He was 0-for-2 in his early game at-bats against James Shields in Game 1, but then singled against him in the seventh inning.

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Crisp
   
• The Red Sox were batting .162 in the leadoff spot in October and had not reached base in 20 ALCS plate appearances before Coco Crisp stepped up with a 2-for-4 night, including the game-tying hit in the eighth inning of Thursday’s come-from-behind win. Crisp’s numbers are lower across the board when batting in the leadoff position versus any other spot in the lineup – he had at least 80 PA’s in the 7,8, and 9 slots this year – but expect him to be the first batter of the game in Tampa tonight with Jacoby Ellsbury slumping.


Image of the day …

The Red Sox scored four runs in the seventh inning and three more in the eighth to erase a seven-run deficit Thursday. The seventh and eighth innings have served as a wake-up call for Boston bats all series:

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Key Matchups…

Red Sox hitters who match up well vs. Shields
 
David Ortiz     Big Papi has hit .417 off Shields since last season. Over that span, 30 percent of the pitches between them have been changeups. Ortiz hit .340 against righty changeups this season.

J.D. Drew     Drew has posted a well-hit average of .389 against Shields over the past two years. Shields has pitched Drew on the outer third 55 percent of the time over that timeframe – Drew is slugging .769 against him when he locates pitches out over the plate.

Red Sox hitters who could struggle
 
Jason Varitek     Varitek is 1-for-13 against Shields over his career. The Red Sox catcher cannot seem to get a good read on Shields’ fastball – he is 0-for-7 against it with two strikeouts and three groundouts.

Jacoby Ellsbury     Ellsbury has really struggled against Shields, hitting .071 against him. Ellsbury has been very impatient against Shields, chasing 29 percent of the pitches between them that have finished out of the strike zone.

 
Rays hitters who match up well vs. Beckett
 
Evan Longoria     Longoria has a well-hit average of .467 against Beckett in 15 at-bats. He’s been all over Beckett’s fastball, logging six hits in 11 at-bats against it with four extra-base hits.

B.J. Upton     Upton is slugging an even .500 against pitchers similar to Josh Beckett over the past two seasons. The red-hot Rays outfielder is 7-for-16 against righty fastballs this October.

Rays hitters who could struggle
 
Carl Crawford     Crawford has posted a well-hit average of only .188 against Beckett the past two years. Over that timeframe, he is 0-for-6 against the hard-throwing Texan, when Beckett busts him inside.

Dioner Navarro     Navarro has produced a mediocre .190 slugging percentage Beckett in his career. When Beckett keeps the ball down against Navarro, he is 0-for-7.